“Determined to Defeat the Villainous Plot”: Benjamin D. Wilson’s Account of the Mexican-American War in Greater Los Angeles, September 1846-January 1847, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When Hubert Howe Bancroft decided, in the late 1870s, to conduct a statewide series of interviews with California residents who remembered life in the region before the American seizure of the Mexican department of Alta California, he provided a great service to the state’s history because so much valuable information would have been lost.

His assistants traveled throughout the state, talking to Spanish-speaking Californios and Anglos and, while at least three decades had elapsed from the time when the latest events had happened and oral histories, as they became known, can, as with most sources, often be inaccurate or constructed based on agenda or bias, many of these interviews are fascinating because of both content and voice, including those of the Californios, including some women, whose stories were generally left out or ignored.

Benjamin D. Wilson (1811-1878), a native of Tennessee, spent considerable time in New Mexico and California and his interview in December 1877, just a few months before his death and reprintd in Robert Glass Clelland’s 1929 book Pathfinders, is filled with fascinating information, including the intrigue that led to the formation of the Rowland and Workman expedition, of which he was a part, of late 1841 that traveled the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles and his recollections of life in this region following his settlement here.

A previous post on this blog discussed Wilson’s role in the Battle of Chino, which took place at the end of September 1846 after American forces seized Los Angeles, Californios launched a revolt to take back the town, and Anglos (including Wilson, John Rowland of Rancho La Puente and many others) gathered at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in modern Chino Hills and were besieged by Californios concerned about the intent of the Americans and Europeans holed up in the adobe house of the ranch’s owner, Isaac “Don Julián” Williams.

The result of that skirmish was the surrender of the Anglos and that post ended with them being readied for a march into Los Angeles for imprisonment with Sérbulo Varela in command of the Californio force and Diego Sepúlveda his assistant. While Varela and Wilson were at the rear of the vanguard, there was a sudden stop, which led the commander to race forward to ee what was taking place.

Wilson said that “the prisoners had all been placed on onw side for the purpose of shooting them,” but Varela rode in between the parties

declaring that he would run his sword through the first man that attempted to touch a hair of the prisoners, and if they wanted to shot anyone, they might shoot him; his voice was stentorian, and his deportment very gallant, and his conduct on that occasion made him worthy of our admiration and respect.

Wilson added that “although in later years, he became very much disspated and really a vagabond, that conduct of his met with recognition from all Americans who knew him.” This respect and gratitude was such, the account continued, that “on many occasions when he was arrested for breaking the peace, some Americans would immediately pay the fine and obtain his release; he was never permitted to be in prison.”

When the party got to Los Angeles, they specifically were taken to “Boyle Heights [where] we were all placed in a small adobe room” and a priest soon entered, leading Louis Robidoux, a rancher in the Riverside area where the well-known hill is named for him, to exclaim “My God, men, they are going to shoot us,” though the friar told them otherwise. Wilson then was told that General José María Flores, commander of the Californios, wanted to speak with him.

The general told Wilson he wanted a message conveyed to the American officer, Captain Archibald Gillespie, that the Californios, enraged by Gillespie’s imperious behavior and actions, such as imposing a curfew, since the American taking of the town, were ready to attack the Americans. Wilson said he advised Gillespie to withdraw and the Americans left the following morning, 28 September.

After that, the prisoners were taken into town and housed at an adobe that later became the St. Charles Hotel, long known as the Bella Union, and across Main Street from Jonathan Temple’s store, the first in town. Wilson said a couple of doctors, Richard Den, long a resident of Santa Barbara, and Eulogio de Célis, who owned much of the San Fernando Valley, attended to the wounded among the Anglos.

Célis arranged for blankets, clothes and tobacco for the prisoners and then turned to the guards and “delivered a severe rebuke to them, asking if they were barbarians o treat prisoners of war as criminals, that only barbarians did so, that civilized warfare demanded at prisoners of war should be kindly treated.” Wilson told the interviewer that he was grateful that Célis “had the courage as well as humanity to stand for us, whils several of our countrymen wo were close aroud us, did not even come to see us.”

With Gillespie and his forces retreated to a ship off the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro awaiting reinforcements, Flores and “many of the prominent” Californios visited the prisoners “and manifested great friendship to us personally, saying if I would sign for myself and men a parole of honor, that none of us would again take up arms or use our influence in any way” against the Californios during the remainder of the conflict,” they would be allowed to go to their homes. When Wilson indicated he would agree, provided that the arrangement would only last until they were exchanged for other prisoners, this was rejected.

The prisoners, in any case, expected to be released in a few days when a new detachment of American forces arrived at San Pedro, but the Americans were driven back to their ships by the Californios in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho, a skirmish in which Jonathan Temple’s wife, Rafaela Cota, provided ammunition to the locals. With this scenario, General Flores became angry and Wilson related that “in a few days we heard of the hellish plot concoted by Flores and Henry Dalton (whose wives were sisters).”

Dalton, a native of London and owner of Rancho Azusa, adjacent on the north to William Workman and John Rowland and their Rancho La Puente, and Flores were “to send us as prisoners and trophies to Mexico” with Dalton purportedly to sell an old store to Flores under the guise of clothing the Californio soldiers and the general “giving to Dalton drafts for large amounts against the Mexican Treasury.” Wilson added that Dalton was to lead the march of the prisoners to México “as evidences of Flores’ great military achievements” and then stated that

William Workman of La Puente Ranch, an Engishman, having heard of the plot, at once came into town, and determined to defeat the villainous plot. He at once put himself in communication with the leading Californians, among the most prominent of whom was Don Ignacio Palomeres [Palomares, of Rancho San Jose in what is now Pomona and a neighbor of Workman, Rowland and Dalton], using the line of argument that if they stood by and allowed us and others to be sacrificed to the cupidity of Flores and Dalton, they would be held by the Americans responsible in the future.

Workman added that Flores and Dalton could simply fly to México for safe haven, leaving the Californios in Los Angeles “to bear the whole brunt” of the Americans’ anger and resulting actions.

Consequently, continued Wilson, the locals “resolved to undo the plan” with a revolution fomented against Flores, so that “one night Flores’ headquarters was attacked, the Californians’ side being led by Workman, Palomeres [sic] and other prominent Californians.” As this conflict unfolded, Wilson noted that he and his fellow prisoners “were in the greatest anxiety, as our fate hung on the result.”

Late in the evening, the gunfire halted and “Workman rushed into our prison bringing us the glad tidings that Flores was a prisoner, and in irons and his and Dalton’s plot broken.” The following day, Palomares, who was commander of the revolt, took the prisoners to Missin San Gabriel “where we remained several days breathing fresh air.” Meanwhile, a deal was struck by which Flores returned to his command under the condition “that we were to be treated as prisones of war, with humanity and not to be sent out of the country.” While he and his compatriots were sent back to prison in Los Angeles, they “were thereafter treated with more kindness and allowed greater liberty,” including getting better food thanks to Luis Arenas, Palomares’ brother-in-law.

It was learned by early November that Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who led the first seizure of Los Angeles in August, “was coming with a powerful force, and with determination to put a stop to all further resistance onthe part of the people here,” so Antonio José Carrillo, who was in charge of Californio forces in Los Angeles, visited the prisoners and “made known to me a plan that he had in his mind to take us all to Temple’s Ranch,” this being Jonathan’s Rancho Los Cerritos, near the harbor at San Pedro.

Carrillo told Wilson that the reason for the transfer was so that

when Stockton should reach San Pedro, and begin to land his forces . . . I want you to raise a white flag . . . [and] you will bear this message to the Commodore from me, that I hope no more blood will be shed on either side during the pendency of the War in Mexico, when the fate of this country must be decided upon . . . Ask him in the name of humanity not to march forces through the country, as this could cause the spilling of blood, and engender bad feeling between two people who in all probbility will have to live together.

Carrillo told Wilson that he would guarantee the protection of Americans in greater Los Angeles and that Stockton could land and have anything in regards to supplies that he wanted for his forces “and hold the sea and landings unmolested.” Yet, when the Americans arrived and “the Commodore’s flagship was loading boats with war materials” and some four of them “came ashore crowded with Marines,” Wilson stood at his place as directed and watched as hundreds of Californio horsemen rode up and he “saw an immense dust raised by a large caballada [drove of horses] mixed with mounted soldiers.”

This action went on for several hours and “gave the impression of an immense mass of mounted cavalry, as not one at a distance could distinguish through the dust, if all the horses had riders or not.” The result was such that “by the time that the cavalcade stopped its manoeuvers, the boats were signalled, as we supposed from the ship, for they all returned to her, leaving nothing on shore” and “the frigate lifted her anchors and put to sea.”

Wilson told the interviewer that he’d read that Stockton landed and exchanged gunfire with the Californios, but lacking cavalry, decided to return to his ship and go to San Diego to arrange a cavalary force for the resulting overland march to Los Angeles. He related, however, that “I assert fom personal observation that Stockton did not land, but that four of his boats came to the water’s edge, and returned to the frigate without having effected a landing at all.” Wilson felt compelled, however, to add that “the commodore did good and gllant service, and his fame needs no fictitious aid.”

Carrillo had Wilson brought to him and stated “that he had deceived hiself in endeavoring to make a demonstration to Stockton of his forces, in order to secure a favorable response; in other words, he had made too great a demonstration, and driven Stockton away.” Wilson and his compatriots remained at Temple’s ranch another night and then were marched back to Los Angeles and returned to their previous prison, though “we were allowed every other liberty” beyond sleeping in the building at night, “and treated with uniform kindness by the natives.”

For the next couple of months “nothing worthy of mention happened in Los Angeles,” though news was relayed of Stockton’s march from San Diego after the disastrous defeat at San Pasqual suffered by General Stephen Watts Kearny and his Army force by Californios by General Andrés Pico and that Colonel John C. Frémont was heading from the north with a batttalion of volunteers.

On 6 January 1847, Pico and other notable locals visited the prisoners and related that they were to soon meet Stockton and Kearny in battle and “you must give your parole and leave your prison for your own safety, as we have no spare force to guard you or to protect you from the rabble.” Pico informed Wilson and Rowland that they could have the two fastest horses in greater Los Angeles and, when the steeds were delivered, the general told Wilson,

Take this horse and you will be perfectly safe; there is no other horse in the country that can overtake you; if I fall in battle give it to my brother Don Pío [the governor was then in México seeking assistance for the defense of California.]

As Wilson and Rowland took to their elite horses furnished by Pico, the other prisoners “scattered themselves among the various vineyards, so as to not to be seen in the streets.” Rowland rode the twenty miles to his home at La Puente, while Wilson headed to join his family at the home of his father-in-law, Don Bernardo Yorba in what is now Yorba Linda and he said that “on my way down i Passed the American forces, but avoided speeaking to them or anyone on the route.

Tomorrow, we’ll conclude this fascinating reminiscence with Wilson’s recollections of the final battles that ended the war in Alta California, his further interactions with Workman at the Workman residence at La Puente, and Wilson’s stated role in the immediate aftermath of the second taking of Los Angeles, so please check back then.

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